The Portland Horror Film Festival Recap

ATMOSfx! Woo!
Mike and Gwen Callahan rage at the Portland Horror Film Festival
The 2019 Portland Horror Film Festival is now in the Scariest rear view mirror, and it was an absolute blast to attend. It is a Mecca for great horror shorts and a true fan festival of the first order.

In our interview with Mick Garris at the Portland Horror Film Festival, he closed the ceremony with a really telling statement. For film buffs, the horror fans get their own genre festivals. There are no Western festivals, no rom-com festivals, no buddy-cop action festivals, and surprisingly, not many sci-fi film festivals. It shows a devotion of the fan base for our preferred genre, and recognition that horror films are meant to be seen with an audience.

Mike and I had the opportunity to see Annabelle Comes Home last night, and though our reaction was more of a shrug than a fist pump, there were audible moments where someone in the theater would scream at a jump scare, and the whole audience would get in on it, giggling in relief. Last year’s big breakout A Quiet Place was absolutely a movie to be seen with a big audience trying to be as quiet as possible. That experience was magic. So was Hereditary, and this year, The Lodge.

What The Portland Horror Film brings you is a first class atmosphere in the famed Hollywood Theater, of which we at the Scariest Things suggest is one of the great theaters in the country. Festival directors Brian and Gwen Callahan have positioned the Portland Horror Film festivals in an advantageous position for their feature films, getting the earliest of the advanced screeners, and were able to feature two world premiere movies, Stay Out, Stay Alive, and The Funeral, and the second US showing of Satanic Panic.

Mick Garris was in town to promote his anthology Nightmare Cinema, and spent a lot of time with the fans at the festival. Folks, if he’s in town for your festival, he’s not to be missed. Catch our PHFF on-stage interview with Mick HERE. The other feature films at PHFF were the excellent Larry Fessenden Frankenstein update Depraved, and the Carrie Meets Firestarter supernatural thriller, Reborn.

First time director Dean Yurke, a veteran of Industrial Light and Magic’s technical wizardry shop, was on hand to support Stay Out, Stay Alive, along with two of his stars, Brandon Wardle and Brie Mattson got to do a bit of a red carpet event and to answer Q&A from the stage. It was amusingly obvious that they were the stars walking amongst the crowd, even if they weren’t exactly famous actors… they were the prettiest and best-dressed people in the building! And, very nice people, by the way. It’s always a kick when the smaller independent movies get to have a full house of fans to appreciate their work. So many films go straight to streaming, that it’s somewhat incumbent upon the film festivals to give these films the proper send-up. It’s doubly true for the short film teams to get the opportunity to see their labors of love on the 100-foot screen.

And indeed, what makes the Portland Horror Film Festival (And its older sister festival, the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival) really shine, is its commitment to the horror short films. Longtime readers of our website and listeners of our podcast will know that we at The Scariest Things are evangelists for the horror shorts. And this year, there was a bonanza of fantastic horror comedy shorts. There were over 400 short film submissions, and 41 short films were selected. These films are passion projects, and some of the short films that go through these festivals are stepping stones for bigger and better things, the future of horror looks to be in great hands. Ari Aster, anyone?

One of the things we will do at The Scariest Things is to post short films when they become available, but due to the need for these short films to continue working their way through the festival season and remain fresh, they aren’t usually available for immediate posting. However, once they get the clearance to do so, we will try and get these up for your enjoyment!

Here are some of our favorites from PHFF 2019:

The Darlings (USA)
Directed by Liz Tabish

This is a 1980s nostalgia romp, right down to the Prince Purple Rain font of the title. It follows a punk band, the Darlings an all-female group (Talitha Marrow, Abigail Lucas, Ashleigh James, and Lindsey Lemke) who are reminiscent of the Runaways of Joan Jett and Lita Ford fame. The band gets a gig out at a remote mansion, when something sinister awaits. But, it’s a full moon, and the girls aren’t defenseless. The look, sound, and feel harken straight back to the straight to VHS era. A nostalgia cherry bomb!

The Darlings: Talitha Marrow, Abigail Lucas, Ashleigh James, and Lindsey Lemke
Fanatico (USA)
Directed by Hannah May Cumming

Students moonlighting as sex workers are being murdered at a Catholic boarding school. An all-female cast, shot in Portland, by a very young director, Hannah May Cumming, who is a film school student at Portland State University. Taking her clues from the gory and stylish ’70s Giallo films, Cumming pulls off all the tricks she had available to her in a remarkable debut short film. This film earned the PHFF Abby Normal award for rising filmmakers.

Students looking for payback in Fanatico
Finley (USA)
Directed by J. Zachary Thurman

Here is the show stopper! This had the whole theater roaring with laughter, and this little film managed to beat out even the feature films for the Horde Award, the audience choice for the whole festival. Finley is a classic evil marionette, who upon discovery by a group of college roommates who are renting the house where he has been boxed in the attic, attempts to go on a murderous spree, but fails miserably. Finley turns all the traditional tropes on their head, and subverts all expectations perfectly. SO GOOD!

Finley’s plans aren’t working out in Finley.
Five Course Meal (Canada)
Directed by James Cadden

My vote for the yuckiest film in the festival, but also one that was hugely entertaining. A young couple agree to participate in one of those lab study tests that can earn you a few bucks by allowing yourself to be a lab rat. Mark (Murray Farnell) and Jenny (Melissa Kwasek) are treated to a sumptuous feast, but cannot control their appetites, and it gets really gross. (But remains hugely entertaining!) Just, can’t stop EATING! Urrrrrghhhh…

Murray Farnell can’t stop eating in Five Course Meal
Georgie (USA)
Directed by Ryan Grulich

This visually arresting take on the fate of Georgie Denbrough, the boy who got attacked at the sewer by Pennywise in It. It’s a surreal take, a bit of a nightmare dreamscape. This film features Ben Heller, the actor who played young Stanley Uris in the television show from the ’90s. Grulich mentioned to me that he is hoping that Warner Brothers will take this little independent film and include it as an extra for the DVD release of the big theatrical production. Good luck, Ryan!

Ben Heller is the grown up Georgie Denbrough in Georgie. Hey, nice boat!
The Hidebehind (USA)
Directed by Parker Finn

A super simple premise of a backpacker (Robin Collins) in the woods being stalked by a boogeyman who can pop out of nowhere, and features some fabulous camera sleight of hand to create some truly disturbing imagery and fantastic jump scares. I got to see an early screener of this at Wizard World, and the scares still held up the second time through. Fantastic pacing and editing earned this film the Jury’s Choice award.

Robin Collins is hiding from a forest boogeyman in The Hidebehind
I Learned How to Drive at the End of the World (China)
Directed by Miao

A young woman is learning to drive by her husband, and the timing couldn’t have been worse, as the zombiepocalypse has just begun. The car won’t start trope gets turned on its head here, where the problem is that “I don’t know how to drive!” becomes the operative problem. A fun entry from and emerging horror market.

Yao Guanchen had impeccably bad luck in I Learned to Drive at the End of the World
The Monster (US)
Directed by Neil Stevens

What starts out as a scary father and son bedtime story, with amusing comedic beats turns very dark and transforms into a very disturbing tale of a family that has gone down a very dark path. Wonderfully scripted, and a fantastic bit of acting from the young protagonist played by Aaron Bradshaw. I felt like this was watching a children’s storybook, like Lemony Snicket’s The Dark if it had taken a very dark and sinister wrong turn. The monster isn’t who or what you think it to be.

Aaron Bradshaw and Brian Ramian are a Father and Son Confronting the proverbial monster under the Bed in The Monster.
Smiley Death Face (US)
Directed by Andrew Patrick Torrez

OK Millennials, this one’s for you! It’s a horror short with all the dialogue in the form of emoji texts! There is something to be said about the visual power of the tiny icons, and how much can be conveyed with one little image. It reminds me of the visual puzzlers on the back of Lucky beer caps (that dates me) where you piece together visual cues to make a sentence, but at warp speed. The beauty is, you always know the puzzle. Phrases like “Look behind you” or “I’ve got a knife” are instant, and the response always gratifyingly amusing. And… it’s actually got some pretty good traditional scares to it.

Jordan Ovitt in Smiley Death Face looking to fend off an emoji texting stalker.
Tick (Canada)
Directed by Ashleigh Wessel

A pair of young vampires (Allison Brooks and Eva Close) hides from a society of hunters in this dystopian near-future story. Strong overtones of immigration and separation of families hit hard in this beautifully shot and emotional short film. This was one of the shorts that really feels like it could be part of a larger narrative that I would like to see, and it flips the idea of who the protagonist and antagonists should be. A Nightmare on Elm Street star Heather Langencamp was a special guest juror for PHFF, and she elected this film for the Bloody Judge Award.

Allison Brooks and Eva Close are on alert in Tick
Vinyl Destination (US)
Directed by Nate Bakke and Daniel Cummings

It was a great year for horror comedies, and this one KILLED IT. This film had the audience busting up regularly. It’s that old trope that if you play a record backward, that there are satanic messages hidden in the musical tracks. This time it’s the unlikely band The Eagles who are the purveyors of demonic summoning. The two idiot hipsters who discovered the apparently “lost track” from the Eagles at a garage sale blatantly ignore the warning of “SORRY” scrawled on the record, and then the fun begins. The comedic timing is spot on and a really fun and fresh take on a classic theme, as the demon is more of a mischief maker than a tyrannical overlord. They actually did record themselves speaking backward so that it would speak in choppy forward language.

Nate Bakke and Daniel Cummings in Vinyl Destination get ready to spin records backwards.
We Got a Monkey’s Paw (US)
Directed by by Aaron Pagniano

Another great horror comedy, this one winning the PHFF Funny Bone award, and it was totally deserving. One of the all time classic “Be careful what you wish for” stories involves the Monkey’s Paw. Pagniano and his wonderful casting pair of Zack Ogle and Jakki Jandrell run through a whole series of blundering wishes that don’t turn out the way they want. And, par for the course for all such tales, there’s a finite number of wishes in that damned Monkey’s Paw, resulting in a cascade or ridiculous and freaky outcomes.

Zack Ogle and Jakki Jandrell in We Got a Monkey’s Paw! learning to be careful what you wish for.
When your selfie isn’t in focus go for the Prisma Art effects! With Zack Ogle and Aaron Pagniano of We Got a Monkey’s Paw celebrating their award at the PHFF after-party.

To reiterate, it is our goal to get these short films posted to our page, as soon as the directors allow it. It might be a year from now, but it will be worth the wait!

The Scariest Things urges our audience to go out and seek the horror convention nearest you, and go see lots of great independent genre films. It is absolutely the best way for you to see films you otherwise wouldn’t get to see on the big screen, and you can be smug and say that you’ve gotten advance viewing of some great films that everyone else will have to wait to show up on the streaming platforms! Plus… the magic of the Horror Short, the lifeblood of a good horror fan festival. At the Portland Horror Film Festival they arrive by the bushel, and they were wonderful.

Review by Eric Li

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